The Painful Stigma of Being Highly Sensitive

highly sensitive stigma

I cringe sometimes when I feel the need to explain I’m a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) because 1. I really shouldn’t feel the need to explain who I am, and 2. there’s a stigma of being highly sensitive. Plus, if I do share, I usually get an eye roll, confused look, or it gets dismissed as quickly as I’ve said it.

People don’t really understand what highly sensitive means these days, because before being highly sensitive was clearly recognized as a fairly normal (20% of the population) innate trait, it already had a negative connotation.

A Pervasive Negative Connotation

Most of the negative connotation surrounding being a highly sensitive person is not necessarily focused on our stress or overwhelm, but more on our emotional responses towards circumstances and people. Our reaction may appear out of balance with what has occurred or been said to us, but only because of perspective. People can only perceive how you should respond through their own experiences, or point of reference.

Our responses may appear strong, but they are still our responses and, therefore, valid.

Has anyone ever told you to quit being so sensitive? Me too. Me and my family are a pretty sarcastic bunch, so when we’re joking around, sometimes the “jokes” cross the line, and I feel hurt. If I show or express that hurt, I might be criticized, or more likely teased, for my reaction.

I tend to cry a lot, whether it’s a devastating event that happened to someone else or a moment in a movie or show that hits me right in the heart. I can’t watch scary, disturbing or gory movies. I’ll have nightmares. I’ll be honest, sometimes I try and hide that part of me because it feels silly to cry at the interactions of fictional characters, but it’s really not. It means that I feel a deep connection, either through relatability or empathy for a character’s predicament, which I convert to real life in my mind. I get easily caught up in it, absorbing it completely.

I recently had my genetics interpreted for some health issues and in the general report, to my surprise, I had what is affectionately referred to as the “empathy gene”, OXTR. The report read, “For rs53576 (oxytocin receptor gene), studies have shown that individuals with the GG genotypes are more empathetic, can become more attached, feel less lonely, have a decreased level of sociality, employ more sensitive parenting techniques, and have lower rates of autism.”

This level of sensitivity and empathy truly is innate. And, it appears as though that gene also relates to introversion.

I imagine anyone who falls into this more sensitive category can understand where I’m coming from. Sometimes, I don’t feel like I can fully be myself around others. People can often be unintentionally callous towards HSPs in how they speak to us, or worse, keeping things from us because they think we can’t handle it.

Breaking the Stigma of Being Highly Sensitive

I love that there are so many more conversations, blog posts, books and information coming out about being HSPs because I think more people need to be educated about what it actually means to be a highly sensitive person, which can help minimize the prevalence of the stigma that surrounds it.

It’s part of the reason I put this blog out there.

I’d like to change the stigma of being highly sensitive. There is a blatant misunderstanding of what being highly sensitive is really about. We are a highly compassionate, highly empathetic, highly insightful, and highly intuitive group of people.

We are not the touchy, broken, fragile souls people make us out to be.

We have a very sophisticated and highly responsive nervous system. It’s right there, in our basic biology.

“Among the primary modes of input into the nervous system are the electrical impulses that arise from sense organs. Touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste are conveyed to the nervous system, in order to integrate information and assess the nature of the external world. “

Biology Dictionary

We are more aware of our surroundings, so we take in and process more at one time, which can often feel overwhelming or stressful for us. We also process this stimuli differently. It can take us longer, and our nervous system’s response to what seems like an endless bombardment of stimuli on our system, is intense and deep.

Everyone’s nervous system and neurotransmitters react differently, but most people fall into a category of “normal” that we HSPs don’t. We’re more responsive than 80% of the population, so we’re seen as outside the norm, but are we?

“Your trait is normal. It is found in 15 to 20% of the population–too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority of those around you.”

Elaine Aron, Ph.D. (hsperson.com)

Where some people may have been born with the ability to let things slide off them, “like water off a duck’s butt” (as my husband likes to say), I have been born to be highly aware, empathetic, and more sensitive to my environment.

The spectrum of how each person is emotionally affected by their internal and external environments is directly related to their genetics and nervous system, and all should be considered normal. And they say highly sensitive people are normal, but I’m not writing a blog about the 80%, am I?

Even we know we’re not normal. We can feel the difference.

Is it better to know or not know?

Elain Aron, who helped bring HSPs to light, coined the phrase “highly sensitive person” (HSP) a long time ago. The term HSP or Highly Sensitive Person has already stuck and is probably going to continue to be used around the world, but wouldn’t it be better if we were called by a gentler name, like highly responsive, highly receptive, or highly aware?

And, is it better to know that you’re highly sensitive? I think so, because it can be empowering.

On the one hand, I already knew I was more sensitive than others, but sadly, I saw it as a negative for most of my life, which only made it more difficult to navigate. I tried to hide my feelings for fear of embarrassment or being criticized. I built walls and put on a brave face to protect myself and faked strength where there was none.

On the other hand, I now know that I’m not alone in how I feel and respond to my environment. I have discovered more about myself since learning I have a hyper sensitive nervous system that contributes to my sensitivity and emotional state. This helps me better prepare myself for everyday life. I can work with my sensitivity and enjoy the best parts of it. I believe it’s made it much easier to accept myself as “highly sensitive” person, and see the good in it.

I can now see with open eyes how important my sensitivity is in the way I see and interact with the world.

Seeing High Sensitivity Differently

I understand that feeling all of the grief, anger, fear, and empathy can be overwhelming and physically draining, but don’t the deep feelings of overwhelming love, joy, and happiness outweigh the rest? Yes, being an HSP can have its up and downs, but more often than not, it’s something to be truly be grateful for, and something to cherish about yourself.

The stigma of being highly sensitive is real, but together, we can break it down that pervasive stigma by talking about it, being undeniably our true selves, and shining a positive light on it.

Start the conversation, share a blog post or book on the topic, or maybe even write about it. 😉

What are your thoughts on the stigma of being highly sensitive? How has it affected your life? Does the term “highly sensitive” feel accurate for you? Share in the comments below. We would love to hear you!


Tea & ♥,

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